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Where Did Dr No-No Go?

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Ambumani Ramadoss shook up TV screens and then vanished. Here’s a look at a politician and a party that miscalculated their future badly.

He is out in the cold, unsung and unlamented ever since the caste-based regional party run by his maverick father faced a complete rout in the last Lok Sabha election. But Anbumani Ramadoss is remembered on a daily basis by habitual smokers across India; it’s not easy opening a cigarette packet without glancing at a disturbing image of rotting lungs. It was his idea.

The former Union health minister, who captured public attention with his high-profile campaign against tobacco, not only managed to enforce a national ban on smoking in public places, but also made it mandatory for cigarette companies to print that gory depiction of tarred lungs on every single pack (with ‘Smoking Kills’ stamped in bold above it). Public memory may be short, but Hindi cinema stars are unlikely to forget the doctor-turned-politician from Tamil Nadu who dared them to a verbal duel on their portrayal of drinking and smoking in films. Unused to being berated, Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan found themselves turning testily defensive before making acquiescence the better part of valour. After all, the minister represented a political party of teetotallers (though few were aware of this beyond his home state), and had become the focus of TV talk shows overnight.

THE BEEPING SCREEN

For a political novice inducted as a rookie member of the UPA-1’s Cabinet that took office in May 2004, Ramadoss had a fairly good instinct for national publicity. If the coalition’s flagship National Rural Health Mission gave him the high ground he sought, his first big fight gave him the headlines. His bitter row with the medical establishment to oust Dr P Venugopal from the directorship of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (Aiims), New Delhi, quickly turned into a cesspool of claims and counterclaims of competing caste interests. At the end, the then health minister got his way. After sacking Venugopal, he attracted an even stronger glare of the spotlight by demanding the legalisation of homosexuality—despite opposition from the Home Ministry. It was the kind of drama TV crews thrive on.

Ramadoss had already made enemies of India’s Left parties when he decided to shut down public sector BCG vaccine-producing units at Guindy and Connoor in Tamil Nadu and Kasauli in Himachal Pradesh. They accused him of risking the national interest for private vaccine makers. A parliamentary standing committee on health also accused him of assigning bulk orders to a private vaccine company that could have gone to the three PSUs. “Though Minister Anbumani was a show maker, he tried to project himself as a public-spirited personality,” observes C Lakshmanan, political observer and faculty member of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, “However, such claims started losing their relevance when he ordered the closure of the three PSUs which produced essential drugs like anti-snakebite serum, diphtheria anti-toxin, anti-rabies serum, tetanus anti-toxin, yellow fever vaccine, Japanese encephalitis and BCG vaccine.” Finally, the Supreme Court had to intervene to rescue the PSUs. Yet, for all that, Ramadoss played the populist in many other ways as well. Medical students may have revolted against his idea of mandating one year of rural service for all new MBBS graduates, but the issue of what these doctors owed the country for their subsidised education never quite died down. The former minister’s unfinished agenda included a strict National Alcohol Policy, which would make social drinking harder. According to sources close him, he was intent on turning most public places booze free. Junk food was his latest target at the time of his flamboyant exit from the Union Cabinet—over Sri Lanka—just before the 2009 Lok Sabha polls.

THE FLATLINER

Today, even in Chennai, nobody knows where Ramadoss has disappeared. What is known is that the election was a disaster for this 41-year-old chinna aiyya (junior sir) of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and his father and party supremo Dr S Ramadoss. The party, dependent largely on Vanniar OBC votes in Tamil Nadu, has been tagged with the label of a turncoat party. Be it the Congress or BJP, the PMK has periodically been an ally of one or the other at the national level—while championing an ultra Tamil nationalism to garner votes back home. But at the state level, they played the same game with the DMK and AIADMK, switching sides as and when convenient.

While the PMK was part of the DMK alliance in Chennai and the UPA in New Delhi, it opted to join hands with the AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa for the polls in anticipation of an anti-incumbency wave. The prevailing pro-LTTE sentiment was expected to be an additional vote-winner, since the PMK was among the few Tamil parties to openly express solidarity with the LTTE and its now-slain leader V Prabhakaran. Plus, of course, its call for liquor prohibition in Tamil Nadu.

As part of the pre-poll arrangement, the AIADMK allotted the PMK seven of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, apart from a promise of support for Ramadoss’ Rajya Sabha candidature in March 2010 (for a second term). But once the ballots were counted, the PMK drew a blank—and Jayalalithaa threw them out of her alliance.

Left in the wilderness, Ramadoss senior and junior have nobody around to help them regain their lost influence. According to PMK sources, the son is pushing the father to make up with the DMK’s Karunanidhi at any cost, in time for the upcoming Rajya Sabha election. But the DMK is in no mood for a patch up, and even within the PMK there is a strong anti-DMK faction—led by GK Mani and Kaduvetti J Raghu—that sees no reason to go grovelling back to Karunanidhi. Of course, alliance making in politics often depends on caste arithmetic. Even here, the PMK is in trouble, with its Vanniar support base dwindling, signs of which observers say are clear from its current state of jitters. The party, which boycotted a recent by-election to the state Assembly citing flimsy reasons, is now speechless over its stand in a by-poll scheduled soon in two other Assembly constituencies. While Ramadoss senior has been issuing the occasional press release, his son, the nemesis of smokers, is nowhere on the scene.

“The PMK is fast losing its relevance and public support and it is now nothing but family property,” alleges Pon Kumar, a Vanniar leader who was once a confidant of the family. “The candidates who contested in all seven Lok Sabha seats were Ramadoss’ kin. The only aim of his opportunistic politics is the promotion of his son Anbumani by any means,” he fumes, before offering a brief history of the party’s existence: “In 1998, it aligned with the AIADMK; in 1999, with the DMK; in 2001, it went back to the AIADMK; in 2004, again with the DMK; and in 2009, the AIADMK once again. Now the party has nowhere to go.”

THE AFTERLIFE

Even Anbumani Ramadoss’ resignation from the Union Cabinet in protest against the UPA’s Sri Lanka policy fooled nobody, say party insiders, coming as it did just weeks before the 2009 election. Then, there’s also the DMDK factor—the party of film star Vijayakanth, which, by going it alone in electoral politics, is also giving the PMK nightmares. Nor does there seem any hope for the party in an alliance with the BJP, given the fading charms of saffron politics in the state. Other alliance prospects are equally dismal. “Ramadoss can find natural allies like Thol Thirumalavan, an MP of the Dalit party Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi (VCK), but they too have a lot to remember about the past when Ramadoss hurt their political growth,” says Ramajayan, a young scholar of the evolution of Tamil Nadu’s caste-based parties. “Despite their rhetoric on homosexuality and smoking, the father-son duo failed to make the PMK a party with appeal beyond the Vanniar community,” says Lakshmanan, “With the Vanniars too keeping their distance, their isolation is complete.”

Senior Ramadoss doesn’t think all is lost, though. Of late, he has demanded a consensus among political parties on not using money to influence voters. He wants the return of old ballot papers. Even on the Maoist issue, he has his own take. “The faulty land policy of the Union and state governments has resulted in the spread of Naxalism,” he says, declaring himself in favour of unconditional talks with Maoists. “Their intentions and reasons are just,” he adds, while expressing reservations over armed struggles. From a man whose son is famous for scare tactics—ask India’s smokers—this doesn’t sound so strange. Dr No-No might still have something to say about what ‘kills’. And ought not to.